Damnation and salvation preoccupy J.M. Coetzee’s fiction. The recently anointed South African Nobel laureate has often used apartheid and post-apartheid life to dissect human cruelty and suffering. In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), his descriptions of an interrogator’s confidence in exacting confessions sicken, even when he closes a door on the torture, releasing only the screams. In The Life & Times of Michael K (1983), a harelipped man, having attempted to ferry his mother from violence to the safe rural plains of her youth, finds himself trapped with her corpse in a frontierland ruled by nomadic armies. In Disgrace (1999), a white man’s daughter is raped by three black men.
In 2002, after years of sending up searing portraits of evil from South Africa, Coetzee left for Australia. His new book, Elizabeth Costello, is a cold little novel, more mind than matter, a series of eight “lessons” in which ideas trump character development. The eponymous Elizabeth, an aging Australian “novelist of failing powers,” performs her academic papers on cruise ships and at middling colleges. Her son calls her “an old, tired circus seal.” She’s opinionated and prickly. And she’s a mouthpiece for Coetzee’s own lectures, which, cobbled together, make up the book’s tenuous structure.
Elizabeth spews fierce ideas about the souls of animals (taken from Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures at Princeton) and the imbecility of scientific experiments. She offers a harsh (and arguable) dismissal of African fiction, and she provides amusing ruminations on sex between mortals and gods. The ideas hold court, but the novel slouches beneath a weary aura. Elizabeth is described repeatedly as tired, and it’s no wonder, what with her being on the road, pontificating from Pennsylvania to the Ross Ice Shelf. In Amsterdam she opines on evil, and it becomes clear that literary osmosis and the relevance of the novel are on trial as well. The fictional Elizabeth attacks the actual novelist Paul West, whose depiction of Hitler’s executioners she finds “Obscene!“—sick with graphic renderings of cold-blooded torture and death. “I think writing like that can harm one,” she tells West. We are what we read and write, she argues.
The gravitational pull of her rage, which begins to unravel her, inevitably tilts the reader’s curiosity toward Coetzee himself. One wonders if pondering the machinations of evil has worn him down. The structure of his 16th book confines its central character to her cerebrum, revealing her soul only in flickers. He never moves her into three dimensions, instead leaving her alone in her conjectures and damning the supporting cast to the novel’s periphery. When Coetzee brings Elizabeth together with her missionary sister, Blanche, the sentence that lingers concerns fiction: “I do not need to consult a novel,” says Blanche, “to know what pettiness, what baseness, what cruelty human beings are capable of.” (Coetzee knows cruelty, occasionally tramping on its grounds: “The horror is that the killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims. . . . They did not say, ‘It is I who am in that cattle car.’ They said, ‘It must be the dead who are being burned today, making the air stink and falling in ash on my cabbages.’ . . . They did not say, ‘I am burning, I am falling into ash.’ “)
Elizabeth Costello’s greatest sufferings appear to be lecturing to the public and growing old. But she channels an aesthetic pain. Near the novel’s end, the lectures concluded, she finds herself in a type of purgatory, forced to enumerate her beliefs to gain entry to infinity. “I am a writer, a trader in fictions. . . . I maintain beliefs only provisionally.” She has lost her faith in art: “Her books teach nothing, preach nothing; they merely spell out, as clearly as they can, how people lived in a certain time and place.” Confused, without words, she almost cries for help. So does Coetzee.